Age brings creaky joints, stiff muscles, and bodies that don’t move quite as well as they once did. It’s all a part of getting older—but it’s not always normal. Sometimes, those sore muscles could indicate a bigger problem.

Swollen, painful joints could signal that you have osteoarthritis, a condition that occurs when the cartilage and bones in a joint deteriorate over time. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common from of arthritis, and it is most prevalent in older adults, especially after age 55.

What’s normal? And what’s not?

The symptoms of osteoarthritis can develop slowly, and they usually occur in an asymmetrical pattern—that is, your left knee may have chronic pain, while your right knee does not. (This is different from rheumatoid arthritis, a systemic inflammatory disorder, which presents in a symmetrical pattern—if one knee is affected, both are.) The following symptoms may indicate you have osteoarthritis:

  • Pain. If your joints become increasingly painful the more you move, or if they stiffen up and become very rigid after you move a great deal, you may have osteoarthritis.
  • Stiffness. After a night of sleeping, your muscles and joints may seem immovable. This sensation is called morning stiffness. You may feel the same stiffness after you have been sitting for an extended period of time. After a few minutes of moving around, the blood and fluids should be flowing to your joints and helping you move more evenly. If it takes significantly longer than 30 minutes or if the sensation never eases, you may have OA.
  • Tenderness. You may experience pain if you press lightly on osteoarthritic joints.
  • Swelling. Swelling is almost always an indication of a problem, whether it’s arthritis or an injury. But for people with OA, long-term use of worn-out joints can irritate and inflame the surrounding cartilage and tissues. This can cause swelling.  
  • Loss of flexibility. People with osteoarthritis are typically not able to move a joint through its full range of motion.

What are the risks of ignoring OA?

OA cannot be cured—it can only be treated. Ignoring symptoms won’t make the disease go away, and if left untreated, the physical damage will become worse over time. In fact, OA may eventually become debilitating. Some of the complications of not treating osteoarthritis include:

  • Bone spurs. Osteoarthritis is the most common cause of bone spurs. Over time, osteoarthritis destroys the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones. As that occurs, your body begins producing extra bone around the affected joints in order to increase the amount of surface area the bone has for holding your weight. These new growths are called bone spurs.
  • Free bodies. If a portion of a bone spur breaks off, it can float freely in your joint. The loose bone portions may then float into your joints, increasing pain and making movements more difficult.
  • Damage to surrounding tendons and ligaments. As cartilage wears away and a joint can no longer function as smoothly as it’s designed to do, the tendons and ligaments around the joint may be called upon to help stabilize the joint during movement. This will cause the tendons and ligaments to be pulled and stretched more than they would be naturally, which can increase pain and swelling in the joint. Over time, tendons and ligaments that are stretched too much will not be able to respond as quickly. Eventually, this could lead to a loss of stability and may weaken bones, making them more susceptible to injury.
  • Septic arthritis. Septic arthritis, which is an infection in a joint, can lead to osteoarthritis if it’s not treated promptly. Osteoarthritis can also increase your chances of developing septic arthritis in other joints. Septic arthritis can cause joint deformity, and if the damage to the joint is too bad, you may also need joint reconstruction surgery.
  • Osteonecrosis. Osteonecrosis is a disease caused when blood is not able to flow to the bones in joints. Without a supply of blood, the body is unable to create new bone. (Bones are continually creating new bone structure. It helps bones heal and stay strong.) Without the blood, bones will begin to weaken, break down, and die. Osteonecrosis is most common in large, weight-bearing joints, such as the hips, knees, shoulders, and ankles.

If you have symptoms of osteoarthritis but aren’t sure if they are from the disease or another cause, make an appointment to see your doctor. Treating OA is the only way to prevent possibly debilitating complications.